<
>

Florida State, Louisville, Miami must rely on better offensive lines

The popular talking point in the ACC this spring focused on inexperience at quarterback at just about every program.

But let’s put aside the most visible position on the football field to focus on the one spot that could end up being the key to championship hopes: the offensive line.

Sure, defense has an opportunity to define the league, but offensive line could be the biggest key at places such as Florida State, Louisville and Miami.

At Florida State in particular, the Seminoles have lacked consistency for several years. In the past two, only Roderick Johnson has earned first-team All-ACC honors as the best blocker on a line that has dealt with injuries, youth, missed recruiting opportunities and depth concerns.

Last season alone, Florida State used seven different starting lineups on the offensive line. While the run game thrived behind Dalvin Cook, there were issues in pass protection, some that caused Deondre Francois to get hit far too often. Francois held the ball too long at times, too, but there is no question the communication, chemistry and cohesion between quarterback and line must get better before the season opens against Alabama.

Indeed, the most important matchup shaping up in that huge opener is between the Florida State offensive line and the Alabama defensive line, which has proven to be one of the strongest in the country year after year.

Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson might be gone from that group, but Da’Shawn Hand, Da’Ron Payne and Raekwon Davis will provide a formidable test early on. And you can guess that the Crimson Tide will look to take advantage of some of the weaknesses they have seen on film, since the majority of linemen who started and/or played last year return.

But Florida State first must figure out who will replace Johnson at perhaps the most important position on the offensive line. Josh Ball and Jauan Williams are the candidates, and both are redshirt freshman. So that means one of them will be making his first career start against Alabama.

Because of injuries that hampered several players this spring, coach Jimbo Fisher still doesn’t have a clear idea about how this offensive line could look come September, except to say they are learning and still have work to do.

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino could say the same after the spring. The Cards signed the best offensive line class in school history in February but must wait for a majority of the players to arrive in the summer and then begin working in the fall to know who will be able to play right away.

Getting that cohesion going early is also crucial. Louisville welcomes Clemson in Week 3, and the Tigers present as strong a defensive line group as the Cards will face all year. Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell are already projected first-round picks in Todd McShay’s way-too-early 2018 mock draft. Dexter Lawrence would be a projected first-rounder in 2019, too, if he continues to develop as expected.

At least Florida State and Louisville return a starting quarterback, and the belief is that Francois and Lamar Jackson will be better equipped to handle what defenses throw at them -- whether that means better decision-making or throwing the ball away faster. In the case of Jackson, coaches are teaching him to change protections at the line based on what he sees when he looks out at the defense.

Miami is the only school among the three that has yet to name a starting quarterback, but the hope here is that this will be an improved offensive line, even with top lineman Danny Isidora gone. Two major keys here: developing depth and true freshman Navaughn Donaldson, who already impressed as an early enrollee freshman during the spring.

There are other offensive lines to keep an eye on as the offseason moves forward. At Pitt, can the Panthers be as successful on the line with left guard Dorian Johnson and left tackle Adam Bisnowaty both gone? How well does Georgia Tech replace center Freddie Burden? North Carolina must replace its two best linemen in Lucas Crowley and Jon Heck. Clemson will rely on Justin Falcinelli to replace Jay Guillermo at the crucial center spot.

If there's any good news, it's that all these offensive lines return experienced players who have an idea about what it takes to play consistently and lead. The potential for improvement is absolutely there.